B’day & New YALSA award & Rev Tip #10 (setting)

(Excuse me, family business first) HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JESSICA!!

(Thank you.)

The nominees for the 2010 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults have been named and I am really excited for two friends, Deborah Heiligman (Charles and Emma) and Tanya Lee Stone (Almost Astronauts) whose books both made the list.Huzzah!

Revision Tip #10

I need to clarify yesterday’s tip.

A Facebook Friend wrote in to say my advice contradicted what Barry Lyga wrote on his blog.

(I’ll wait while you hop over to Barry’s page and see what he wrote.)

(Really, it’s OK. I just made tea. The fire is warm. Go on! Shoo!)


(Are you back yet?)

Barry and I agree more than we disagree. We are both striving for the balance between tight writing and clear writing. Neither one of us wants you to waste words and page space on dialog or description that don’t move the story forward.

But I see opportunity to use what he calls "blocking" as a way to move the story forward. It’s all in the details. There is no point to just throwing in descriptions of actions simply to avoid a page of dialog that bounces back and forth between two people. (For the record, my first drafts are often page after page of dialog.) The key is to find THE EXACT RIGHT ACTIONS that will help your characters show what’s going on inside them in addition to telling.

This is where choosing the right setting for a scene helps.

I’ll give you an example from CATALYST. There is an emotionally loaded scene in which the main character, 18-year-old Kate, is talking to her younger brother. The two of them have just come from a funeral for a small child who was a neighbor. The brother is pestering Kate for details about their mother’s funeral, which happened when he was an infant.

In the scene, Kate is cleaning the kitchen. (Their father is the minister, they live next to the church, the congregation gathered at their house after the funeral for a meal.) She is wiping clean, sanitizing, scrubbing, putting things into boxes, sweeping up – all actions that really show what she is trying very hard to do with the memories and feelings about the death of her mother. In the climax of the scene, she puts the last container of food in the refrigerator and slams the door so hard that family photos and the drawings by the dead child all fall off the door of the fridge.

That dialog could have been set in many different places, but I deliberately chose the kitchen because of the opportunities it gave me to create subtext for Kate. Putting action into dialog sequences ensures you don’t have talking heads on the page, and it allows you to give the reader more information than just the dialog alone, if you are wise about your choice of action and setting.

Does this make sense?

Questions? Thoughts?

9 Replies to “B’day & New YALSA award & Rev Tip #10 (setting)”

  1. My Two Cents

    I feel your method leaves more to the readers imagination, allows them to decide the “why” of where the story goes, instead of telling them. I don’t think teens like to be told anything especially why something happens or why something is said; they like to think for themselves. This isn’t true for all teens, and by no means is a slam to Mr. Lyga. I agree with your summation that the two of you do agree more than disagree; I understand the necessity for both methods.


  2. After reading both your post and Barry’s, I don’t see a contradiction. Both of you are saying essentially the same things–don’t overstate/overwrite and use setting to deepen the meaning of your character’s dialog.

  3. I’m a big fan of seeding action into the dialogue. I think, when you have long stretches of dialogue without any action, the words lose the feel of prose. To take an extreme example, I never managed to finish reading Gaddis’s JR, which is pretty much all unattributed dialogue. There are times when an insignificant action is actually significant.

  4. Lyga chiming in

    I don’t have an LJ account, so excuse the apparent “anonymity…”

    “It’s all in the details. There is no point to just throwing in descriptions of actions simply to avoid a page of dialog that bounces back and forth between two people. [snip] The key is to find THE EXACT RIGHT ACTIONS that will help your characters show what’s going on inside them in addition to telling.”

    Yeah, that’s really all I was saying. I just approached it from the opposite side. Laurie is saying, “Here are the actions you should add to your dialogue in order to make a scene pop.” And I’m saying, “Here’s what you should subtract from your dialogue to make your scene pop.” This is because — in my experience — new (especially young) writers have too much cruft in there to begin with. Adding isn’t a problem.

    Laurie’s seen the opposite problem, clearly.

    I, for one, am enormously disappointed that this prime opportunity for a good old-fashioned Writin’ Feud is being derailed by Laurie’s reasonableness.

  5. I agree with the above – Barry’s saying take out everything that doesn’t add to it and so let the dialogue carry the scene, and you’re saying whatever you do use, make it count by being more than cliché gestures, like flipping back one’s hair or lighting a cigarette.

    I knew about using tags as beats, and to take out as much as you can, but I didn’t know about using actions to convey character or as symbols of what’s taking place in the dialogue, as in that scene from CATALYST. So now I’m watching for that in everything I read.

    Today it was a teenager feeling good for once when he goes to see his therapist – he starts off the scene reaching for a sweet roll. On the next page the therapist brushes the sugar from his sweater and gets down to business. I never would’ve noticed it before, but it definitely added to the tone.

  6. Great points on both sides. I had a great writing professor who worked very hard to break us of the, “she took another sip of coffee,” blocking. It’s tough because there are lines of dialogue, like the example Barry uses (“Don’t move. I’m serious.”) into which one is inclined to put a pause for emphasis.

    For this reason among others, I really like to have characters converse while doing something. It’s hard to write a compelling scene where two or more characters are just sitting there talking to each other. It’s certainly not impossible, but it becomes very tempting to break up the dialogue by inserting lots of coffee-sipping-level actions or mentions of so many expressions and twitches that the characters seem spastic.

    Your kitchen-cleaning scene is a great example. Not only is there character-revealing subtext, but having actions that come naturally to the scene provides for breaks in dialogue when you want them. A scene like that even ties into setting, giving you the impression of the household (photos and drawings on the fridge, etc.), whereas pure dialogue often makes it easy to lose track of things like where the characters are. After all, a talking-heads scene could happen everywhere, whereas your kitchen scene is grounded and specific.

  7. Rev Tip #10

    I think that your posts complement, rather than contradict one another. I’m an unpublished author, but I still feel that there is balance between thought, action, and dialogue. How dialogue is written depends on characters and circumstances. Your example clearly shows how important your actions enhance the dialogue, so without the kitchen scene the words wouldn’t have as great an impact.
    My feeling is that if the action keeps the dialogue flowing, add it. But if it detracts, don’t. That’s why feedback from other writers is essential.

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